The Definition of Brave

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We think that by bearing our truths and sharing our stories, we’ll be faced with disapproval, ignorance, judgement, indifference even. We fear a painful backlash if we are to open up about the ways our brains are unique.

Some people would say the definition of brave is fourteen individuals standing up on stage in front of a sold-out audience of almost 400 to talk about what life feels like when one has been dealt the mental illness card. It’s knowing the entire performance is being videotaped so that it will be shareable to the world later. There is the potential it will reach thousands of people. Maybe millions.

It’s pacing backstage, outside a tiny dressing room, as we hear our anthem belted out with such beauty and soul that it’s impossible not to lip sync to calm our nerves.

It’s voices shaking, mouths dry as toast, weight shifting as we sit in a chair waiting for our turn to be introduced. It’s a deep breath sucked in and sighed out nervously before beginning to speak. It’s making eye contact with the audience members we can see outside of the tight spotlight shining directly on the space within our arms’ reach.

The definition of brave is not letting the cry pierce the surface when reminiscing about all the pain and suffering we endured, even though verbalizing the memories is like rubbing salt into a wound with tiny cracks in the scab that has yet to crust over completely. Brave is letting the feelings and emotions catch in bated breath for a second. Or a few seconds. Then continuing to finish the story. No one said it was going to be easy.

Brave is not giving up on sharing our story even though it hurts like hell.

What we’ve been through has taught us intense empathy, and for that we wouldn’t trade our conditions for that of a healthy, non-mentally-ill person. We are the lucky ones. Our determination to get well and stay well earns us the title of fighter on the outside. On the inside, it’s more like embracer.

We tell our stories as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how we work hard to stick to our treatment plans each day in order not to fall backwards. The days and weeks and months and years may put distance between our horrible sadness, our frantic madness, the chaos and confusion in our minds. Those are the moments we only keep in our memory for the reminders of what it felt like so we never let ourselves return there.

We are brave not because it’s a walk in the park to relive those moments, but because we know that by sharing our stories there’s a chance that one day, someone who is looking for a sign that things will get better, might find our stories. They will listen to us speak our raw truths and though our voices may shake, and tears may fall, they’ll see us rise above. We’ve been able to overcome mental illness. We chose life and we choose to be brave and continue to share our stories in hopes that we’ll inspire others to share theirs, too.

We share our pain because it only takes one person saying, ‘Thank you,’ to make us realize why. Why we chose to be brave in the first place. Why we chose to bare our souls and hold up our hearts for those before us to drink them in. Why we chose to walk off that stage with no regrets.

We are brave to demonstrate to others the power of sharing their stories. How powerful and healing it could be for more people to share their personal journeys of living with mental illness. The definition of brave shouldn’t have to describe talking openly about mental health disorders. It’s more accurately courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Because although we may be scared, and we may feel as though we will face danger or endure pain from sharing our stories, the reality was that when This Is My Brave took to the stage, the theater was filled with nothing but love, encouragement, understanding, acceptance and appreciation for what we did. Which is exactly why I’m excited to continue this journey.

Someday, in the very near future I hope, we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it brave to talk openly about living with mental illness. We’ll simply call it talking.

Corporate Photography, Political Photography, PR Photography

My Story Isn’t Over – #SemicolonProject416

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It rained today. Hard, pounding raindrops came down in sheets and I remember the bitter hatred I have towards this type of weather. How frustrated I get with the wetness, the dreary clouds that hang around until the storm finally passes. And then I realize – that’s the takeaway.

With my form of bipolar illness, I lean towards mania, rather than depression. Three or four nights off meds and with poor sleep and I’ll end up manic to the point of hallucinating, needing intravenous antipsychotics and a week in the mental hospital to return me to a semi-normal state. Then there are the weeks of recovery afterwards. I don’t dare mess with my treatment plan. It’s as much a part of my life as breathing and eating. It keeps me in the middle and for me, that is a beautiful place to be, especially with a household to run with two little ones looking up to me and counting on me to stay healthy.

But the rain. It’s still coming down, relentlessly soaking everything without a roof over its head. Rainy days can so easily take me back to the year of my life when I was so smothered by depression that I contemplated ending my own life to make the pain stop. I had been diagnosed a few months earlier with Bipolar Disorder Type 1, had to resign from a career I had worked so hard at, and was afraid the confidence that used to sparkle in my eyes would never return. I felt so far gone. I couldn’t see an end to the stormy fog I was living in.

The hardest part about the year I was being suffocated by depression was that I didn’t have people to look up to. People who had been in the dark, murky trenches of mental illness and yet had emerged stronger and more equipped to keep going. Because when one is diagnosed with a mental illness it never goes away, we must find a way to live with it and manage it so that it doesn’t manage us.

I recognized my suicidal thoughts, was absolutely terrified by them, and although I was ashamed by these feelings I was experiencing, somehow found the courage to tell my husband and parents and my psychiatrist who then changed my medications. Within a few weeks I started to feel better, the thoughts began to fade, and I was able to lift my head above the fog. I chose not to end my story, and because I was able to get help and support, I am here today advocating for mental health awareness through my blog and my show, This Is My Brave.

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These conversations don’t have to be hard. The more we open up and talk about mental illness, the more people will realize that it’s an illness like any other and that with proper treatment and support, anyone can overcome mental illness to lead happy, successful lives. The more we share, the more we encourage others to be vulnerable, and this ripple effect is the change that the mental health community needs to break down the ignorance that surrounds societal views on mental illness.

We are human. We live with mental illness and we want to be heard. We can persevere because our stories matter.

#THISISMYBRAVE

We Need Universal Mental Health Screening for Women Having Babies

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I experienced both a postpartum mood disorder (postpartum psychosis) and a perinatal psychiatric issue (a manic episode which led to psychosis) very early on in my second pregnancy. I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder two years before my husband and I decided to start a family, and yet I found limited support and information in my quest to have as healthy a pregnancy and postpartum experience as I could. When I think back to that time in my life, I strongly believe that if I had received better screening – particularly after my first pregnancy – much of the trauma and heartache of what I went through could have been avoided.

Before I experienced mental illness on a personal level, my ignorance of the various forms of psychiatric conditions caused me to judge people whose stories were covered in the media. I remember watching news coverage of the Andrea Yates trial thinking HOW COULD THAT HAPPEN? And then it happened to me seven years later. Thank God my outcome was drastically different.

Just this week a pregnant mother and her three children were rescued in Daytona Beach, after she drove the family minivan into the ocean. A family member had called police hours earlier to express concern over her strange behavior, including talk of demons.  On the 911 tapes, you can hear the sister request a well-being check because “she’s like having psychosis or something.”

This woman literally saved her sister’s life, the lives of those three children and the life of her sister’s unborn baby with that call for help.

They were lucky to have avoided an outcome similar to that of the Andrea Yates case. Simply because someone close to the person who was suffering took action.

Now it’s our turn to take action. There is an urgent need for changes in the way we screen women during pregnancy and postpartum in order to stop incidents like these from ever occurring in the first place.

Maybe this woman’s sister recognized what her family member was going through because of the increase of more open dialogue about women’s mental health issues. I can feel the wave of mental health awareness gaining momentum and hope that very soon there will be less ignorance out there and more acceptance. Because together we can make a difference.

Which is why I support this important White House petition to create mandatory universal mental health screening for pregnant and postpartum women. Did you know that suicide is the leading cause of death for women during the first year after childbirth? Or that 1 in 7 women will experience a mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy or postpartum, yet nearly 50% remain untreated?

We need change. We need to screen every mother, every time to prevent and treat perinatal mental illness.

Recovery is possible – I am a perfect example of this. But wouldn’t it be incredible if in the future we could catch cases like mine before they escalate? Before they lead to suffering and even death? No woman should have to suffer in silence because she’s afraid to admit what she’s thinking or feeling. We need to provide her with the chance to find recovery early. We need to recognize the signs and symptoms and take action.

Please take a moment to sign the petition: Every Mother, Every Time. Creating a WhiteHouse.gov account takes only a minute and there are simple tools to share the petition on Facebook and Twitter once you have submitted your signature.

This movement will save lives. We need 100,000 signatures to get the attention of the Obama Administration. Let’s come together to make our voices heard on this critically important issue.

Every Mother, Every Time.

Tweet about the petition with the hashtag #EMET:

Thank you for helping to spread the word.

So long, self-doubt

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Why does self-doubt seem to know exactly when to punch you in the gut and knock the breath out of your chest so fiercely that you wonder if what you’re doing with your life is even making an impact?

A month ago I took the greatest risk of my life thus far by launching our Kickstarter for This Is My Brave, and it went above and beyond my wildest expectations. I thought to myself, “Yeah. $6,500 in 31 days is a lofty goal, but I’m fairly confident we’ll get there.”

The love and support that poured out from our friends and family and people who we hadn’t even met in the form of donations and words of encouragement was both overwhelming and exhilarating.

There are so many people who are just as passionate as we are about spreading messages of hope and inspiration while at the same time silencing the stigma surrounding mental illness. We raised over $10,000 for our show’s mission and I felt like we were on top of the world.

But the emotional high I was surfing on came crashing down like a monster wave when the news of the Deeds’ family tragedy broke on Tuesday morning. The weight of the story was like a 50-pound brick on my heart. It was all I could think about. I wanted to scream “THIS COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED!” to every person I ran into in my daily comings and goings all week.

And then I met someone who understood.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you meet someone new and you can tell after talking with her for five minutes that she just “gets” you and although you were strangers six minutes earlier, it feels as if you’ve known her for ten years?

It happened to me on Thursday and was the highlight of my day. Once I got my baby girl down for a late nap, I immediately took pen to paper. A piece of me still wants to prove to my mom that she was wrong. That I’ve received nothing but overwhelmingly positive support for opening up about living with mental illness, especially from the moms at my son’s preschool. The very group she thought might shun me. Back then my mom didn’t realize that by keeping quiet about what I was going through she was actually adding to the stigma surrounding mental illness. We were all so new to it eight years ago. And I don’t blame her for wanting to protect me. She’s my mom, and moms don’t ever want anyone to hurt their babies.

We’ve come a long way since then and both of my parents {and my in-laws} are very supportive of the advocacy work I’m doing now.

This sweet mom whose daughter has been in my son’s class all fall, yet I only met this week. She said something to me as we were chasing our toddlers out the door after dropping off our two older kids in front of their classroom. And I know will stick with me forever.

“You must feel such a sense of accomplishment and pride in what you’re doing and how many people you’re impacting with This Is My Brave.”

And do you know what my response was? Of course I later thanked her for her kind words, but my immediate response was, “I feel like I’m not doing enough.”

Part of me felt compelled to blog about the self-doubt that crept into my bones this week to remind myself that what I’m doing with This Is My Brave is pretty spectacular. Even though in the wake of the news out of Virginia this week I feel like it’s only a teeny sliver of hope. A faint glimmer of the desire to improve the way society and our government deals with mental illness.

 At least it’s a start.

We talked for an hour while our 3-yr-olds ran around and explored every corner of the playground. I could have talked with her for the entire rest of the afternoon. But alas, the temperature won out and after running around with no coat on, baby girl was adequately frozen and ready to call it quits. I gave my new friend a hug as we said goodbye and I’m already looking forward to our next impromptu playdate with our littles.

While driving home my thoughts drifted to how the sky looked similar to the way it did in late October of 2008 when I was released from my week-long stay in the hospital after having experienced postpartum psychosis. My heart aches for the Deeds family because they weren’t able to get the medical attention and treatment that their son so desperately needed. They should have been visiting him in the psychiatric unit of the hospital today, but instead they are planning his funeral.

This isn’t right.

We need the laws changed so that we can protect these individuals from themselves and others when they are so ill. And we need nets, as my friend Glennon so vividly described in this post. We need so many nets.

This Is My Brave is my effort to create a net.

And although I know that I want my next step to be petitioning our government for changes to our mental health system, my focus right now is on this show, my heartfelt contribution to changing the way people feel about mental illness.

And hopefully, in turn, it will inspire people to come together and create actions which will facilitate the change we so desperately need.

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